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Bahraini Salafists in Spotlight

The recent deaths of Bahraini jihadists in Syria point to the rise of radical Salafism in Bahrain.
A fighter from Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra runs with his weapon as their base is shelled in Raqqa province, eastern Syria, March 14, 2013. REUTERS/Hamid Khatib (SYRIA - Tags: CONFLICT POLITICS) - RTR3EZGW

At the beginning of 2013, 19-year-old Abdurrahman al-Hamd left Bahrain for Syria, driven by a desire to fight in the jihad and to heed the many calls issued by Islamic centers for people to fight against the Syrian regime. On May 28, Abdurrahman returned home in a coffin.

Immediately afterward, his relatives rushed to publish photos of him in battle, one of which showed him — Kalashnikov rifle in hand — atop a military vehicle flying the Jabhat al-Nusra flag.

His father, Sheikh Adel al-Hamd, a Salafist preacher and the imam of a mosque in the al-Rifa' region south of the capital Manama, said in an audio recording, “He fulfilled his wish.”

Just a few days passed before further news emerged about the deaths of four more young men, which pushed the death toll to five Bahrainis killed in the span of just one week. Websites subsequently published photos of one of them, Abdul-Aziz al-Uthman, wearing the military uniform of the Bahraini Defense Forces in one of the areas controlled by the Syrian mujahideen.

Salafism modified

Until recently, it was believed that the prominent Salafist movement in Bahrain was a traditional one that swore absolute obedience to its leader and forbade all forms of political activities. Even with slight modifications to this line of thought — which lifted the prohibition on political action under the religious premise of allowing "an evil to occur in order to prevent a greater evil from occurring" — absolute obedience to the ruler remained a central tenet of Bahraini Salafism.

The Al-Asalah Islamic Society, which was established in 2002, is considered the most prominent faction espousing this line of thought, and is the main Bahraini Salafist movement.

Al-Asalah, which has close ties with Saudi Arabia, is represented by four MPs in the Bahraini parliament and controls one cabinet portfolio in the current government. Throughout its 10 years of overt political work, Al-Asalah exhibited great synergy with the Bahraini regime. It also expressed its unequivocal rejection of al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden, and his jihadist Salafist philosophy.

As a result, Bahrainis never before participated in any operations carried out against the outside world.

But between 2003 and 2012, the Bahraini Interior Ministry announced the uncovering of numerous Salafist cells that it accused of “raising money” for al-Qaeda and “training with the aim of striking against Western interests” as well as “taking photographs of vital installations.” Reports confirmed the incarceration of six Bahraini Salafists in the prison at the US Guantanamo Bay naval base on the island of Cuba, two in Saudi Arabia and one in Kuwait for similar infractions. Despite that fact, it remains difficult to prove whether any of those people actually participated in operations carried out by al-Qaeda.

All of those men were subsequently released, including the ones that were taken at different intervals to Guantanamo after having been sold out by clans inhabiting the Pakistani border region.

Another face of Salafism

The deaths of five Bahraini Salafists in the course of one week in Damascus had a never-before-seen impact in Bahrain, reopening the debate about whether the previously mentioned "spotless" image that the Bahraini Salafist movement enjoyed was true, or whether it only represented the visible part of its hidden, real identity.

In August 2012, a delegation of Bahraini MPs belonging to the Islamist Al-Asalah Society snuck into Syria through Turkey to meet with militants from the Soukour al-Sham (Hawks of Greater Syria) faction, and announced that they “delivered donations sent by the Bahrainis to the Syrian people.”

On May 29, the Salafist preacher Sheikh Adnan al-Aroor, known for his extremist and anti-Shiite views, visited Manama and took part in a campaign held at a mosque in the Al-Buhair region south of the capital, to raise funds from Bahraini Salafists in solidarity with the Syrian people.

Local newspapers later stated that Aroor was able to auction off his religious robes, known in the Gulf as al-Bisht, to a wealthy Bahraini for the sum of 15,000 dinars (approximately $40,000).

These activities did not seem to go beyond humanitarian efforts to include the training of local fighters who were sent to Syria.

On one occasion, a campaign in August 2012 to raise contributions for Syria made a claim that was grossly misinterpreted. In that case, organizers urged donors to contribute money that would be used to “train the hero invaders.” They set the cost of one contribution share to 1,000 dinars ($2,600). The common belief was that the contributions raised would be delivered to Syrian opposition factions. Once again, the view that prevailed was that Bahraini Salafism supported the Bahraini regime.

An emerging new nucleus

In his first comment about the death of Abdurrahman, Sheikh Adel al-Hamd revealed that his son “had prepared his weapon, obtained military uniforms and took part in training exercises held in Bahrain itself” before he went to fight in Syria. He pointed out that Abdurrahman left school once the jihadist mentality took hold in him, and that he alone in the family knew about this occurring.

Last week, another young Bahraini man, Abdel Menem Ali, was killed fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra. It was revealed later on that he was a field commander. Subsequent to the news of Ali’s demise during battles in Hama’s countryside, Sheikh Mohamed Khaled, a former MP and member of the Al Menbar National Islamic Society (Islamic National Tribune), which is the political arm of the Bahraini Muslim Brotherhood, stated, “He was a field commander in Syria.”

These facts point to the emergence of a new nucleus within the Bahraini Salafist phenomenon, the philosophy of which has converged with that of international jihadists. It also reinforces concerns of a jihadist blowback on Gulf states after the Syria war.

A few weeks before his death, young Abdurrahman wrote on his Twitter account, “I stand with the coming Gulf revolution.” In other tweets, he made it clear that he abhorred both the Bahraini and Saudi ruling families.

In reality, this emerging nucleus solidified its roots thanks to Abdurrahman’s father, whose movement reflects the schism occurring inside Salafist ranks. For a time, Hamd maintained the traditional Salafist philosophy predicated on rejecting partisanship or the formation of local political groups.

But, little by little, he began developing a new and different version of Salafism that further distanced him from the mainstream Bahraini Salafist movement led by the Al-Asalah Society. In his last sermon, he harshly criticized the Westernism of the ruling regimes and the policies adopted in the region. He also recently called on members of the Bahraini army and police to “employ their military expertise to train the militants in Syria.” As such, it was no surprise that the first Bahraini killed in Syria was none other than one of his sons.

Husain Marhoon is an independent Bahraini journalist. He has worked as a columnist and coordinator of the cultural pages for the Bahraini newspapers Al Waqt and Al Ayam. He covered the events of the Bahraini Spring since 2011 for several media outlets, and his articles have been published in a variety of Arab newspapers and periodicals, including Al-Akhbar, An-Nahar and Al-Jazeera. On Twitter: @marhoon

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